Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Serving Suggestions

Here at Confessions central, high atop the eastern tower of my Fortress of Solitude, I like to think I'm here to educate as much as I am to waste everyone's time by reading my mindless prose. I find it gratifying that all eight of you continue to read this blog, though for all I know you decided to follow me and then never showed up again. But I like to tell myself that you're still out there, still reading. Just like I like to tell myself the hottie at the next table with the huge, brown eyes and cute nose is going to come home with me tonight and let me gnaw on her delicate shoulders.... Which is to say, I'm good with lying to myself.

And this is the central theme of today's post. When I told you that your server was lying to you when he told you the pasta was indeed homemade (it isn't) and the seabass was delicious (he has no idea), I didn't mean to suggest that all aspects of waiting tables involved lying (it does). No, certainly not. Lying is only a small part of your job. The majority, in all seriousness, lies in suggestive selling.

Now I certainly didn't invent this concept, and I lay no claim to it. The idea of telling customers what they want is as old as the Nile. I often wonder what the very first restaurant in human history was like. For some reason, it's not covered in the bible, and I wish it was. Couldn't Abraham stopped off at a shwarma place on his way from Ur to Canaan? Couldn't God have issued a few commandments on the subject? After all, there are 613 laws in Duteronomy. Don't you want to know what the heck the restaurants in Sodom were serving? But for that first guy selling crocodile burgers down by the Temple of Hatshepsut, he had to invent everything. Like the first service charge for eight or more customers, and the first "no shirts, no shoes, no service" policy. It's not like he could consult anyone; he had to come up with this stuff from whole cloth.

Anyway, it's your job as a server to anticipate your customer's needs, by overselling him as much as possible. What you're doing is giving the customer options he may or may not know he has. You're trying to enhance his dining experience by making helpful suggestions, all of which involve making the check more expensive.

For example, when a table sits down, the first thing I'm going to do after saying hello is asking if anyone wants a drink "from the bar." This is crucial. If you ask if they simply want a drink, you're like to just sell them tap water. After all, that's a drink. However, if you casually mention the bar, now the customer is thinking "alcohol." Maybe they didn't see the bar on the way to their table. Maybe they didn't even know they wanted a cosmopolitan.

You can get even more devious (I mean "helpful"); "Can I get anyone a cocktail?" puts the idea of a tasty, and more expensive, drink directly into their minds. You can, and should, tailor this to your table. For example, if I'm waiting on a table of 20-something guys, that question becomes "would you guys like a beer?" Because they're more likely to order beer. For older guys, suggest the cocktail because they're more likely to want a scotch on the rocks or a martini. For a table of women, just suggest a glass of wine. Chicks either drink white wine or cosmos. Now this isn't perfect, but a rule-of-thumb. I once had a table of old grandmas order Dewars on the rocks and manhattans. I almost fell over.

The point is, you have subtly let your customers know that you indeed have a bar, and would be happy to get them a drink.

When the customer agrees that, yes, what they need is a tasty alcoholic beverage, the next question that must reflexively come out of your mouth is: "what brand?" If they order a martini, what kind of vodka (or gin)? If it's a scotch and soda, what brand of scotch? Would you like that cosmo to be a Grey Goose cosmo? I'm doing this because a name-brand alcohol costs $2-4 more than house liquor. And because my customer really doesn't want to drink house vodka, because that's really turpentine drunk by hobos. See, I'm looking out for you.

You do the same thing with the food. You go to the table, and your guests immediately go right to the main course. No worries. They're hungry and they want food now. So what you do is "go back to the top of the menu", by which I mean you ask them if they'd like an appetizer. "Oooo. They have appetizers," the customer thinks. See, they're so focused on dinner they didn't even stop to consider an appetizer. About fifty-percent of my customers order something, at least to share. A calamari or a ceasar salad. In fact, I'll sometimes suggest just that; "can I get a calamari for the table?" This generally works better in larger groups -- four tops or bigger. You're offering options here.

Similarly, you should be thinking "upsell" for any main dishes on the menu that have them. Some dishes have options, like adding chicken or seafood. So when a customer orders the fettucini alfredo, the questions "would you like that with chicken?" pops out of my mouth automatically. Because maybe the customer didn't see the tiny type under the entry on the menu that informs him he could do that. And because the fettucini alfredo tastes better, is a bit more of a meal, with the chicken. Your customer deserves to be informed of that option, so he can enjoy his meal even more. Oh, and this bumps up the check an extra $5.

Going back to the booze section of the meal, I just remembered something. If you've got a four-top and they all order a glass of wine, you should instead suggest they get a bottle. Your standard 750 ml. bottle of wine gives you four glasses, so it's more efficient, and the wine by the bottle is generally better than the swill the restaurant serves by the glass. Try to pitch it that way. Make it about enhancing the diner's experience. Depending on the bottle they choose, you've also just increased the check.

I can see that I've missed the central tenet of suggestive selling. Know your customer. Read them like you read the newspaper (if any of you read the newspaper. If not, then read them like you read 4 Chan). Some examples:

1) When a mom and dad come into the restaurant with a young child, I always suggest a drink (alcoholic) and pitch the mother. Because she's spent all day dealing with precious little bundle of joy, and could really use a drink right about now.

2) Women generally order salads. So when you "go back to the top of the check", suggest a salad before dinner. Don't waste your time pitching the beef carpaccio. Similarly, suggest white wine. You may get them to go for a cosmo or other "girly" drink, but white wine, especially pinot grigio, is a good bet.

3) Four young men dining together are going to go for the meat on the menu. You're going to be selling steaks and beers (maybe scotch). At the end of the meal, ask them if they want to see the dessert menu, but don't count on it. They're more likely to go for an after dinner drink.

4) Four young women don't want to look like alcoholics. So when you see empty wine glasses on the table, don't ask each one individually if they'd like another. They'll say no. Ask them if they'd like another round; you'll get a few takers, and go from selling no wine to selling two or three. Also, automatically bring a dessert menu; women will wrap up their half-eaten dinner to make room for dessert. (They're also going to ask to split the check. For some reason, women don't like to pay for each other's meal. They'll sit there with a calculator and figure out to the penny what each of them owes. Guys, on the other hand, will pick up the check. I'm not sure why women hate each other so much as to be jerks about the check).

5) You've got a date table. You can tell it's a date table by their body language. Don't even bother with a dessert menu. If your restaurant has a dessert tray, bring that over. Once the girl sees the dessert, she's gonna want one. And the guy doesn't want to look like a cheap jerk, so he'll buy her one. Net sale of one dessert. In fact, use this to your advantage at every stage of the meal. Offer her options that the guy will have to pay for. Isn't love (or the desire for hot sex) grand?

Lastly, the most important aspect of suggestive selling is: don't let on how much all this costs. If you do it right, that tap water becomes either an $8 glass of wine or a $10 Ketel One mixed drink or $12 Hendricks martini. You go from selling two dinners to including an appetizer, and from selling the basic meal on the menu to upselling with options. And you can get them to go for dessert, too. You can take a $40 check up to $80 easily.

All in the name of "enhancing your customer's dining experience." Present options, subtly. Think of who you're waiting on, and what they'll likely want. Tell them what they want before they know it. Your customers will love you for it (and so will your manager). Learn to anticipate your customer's needs. Which is the subject of the next blog.

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